Results tagged ‘ Desmond Jennings ’

Joy and Agony Co-exist for One Rays Moment

I have to say watching the ball come off the bat of Tampa Bay Rays RF Matt Joyce last night, you knew if it was headed for Right field, it was as good as gone. But that is the thing about this new “replica” Yankee Stadium, it is designed with a nice air stream flight path for well-hit blasts by left-handers like Joyce.

Then Joyce did something that immediately took my joyous enthusiasm and turned into utter concern and a low agonizing groan. For some reason Joyce did something he usually doesn’t do when he hit the ball, he kind of laser-beamed on the ball and did an impromptu twist and turn with his left foot that somehow made him put his entire body weight on the outside of his left ankle as it sat perpendicular to the clay. Joyce then took a slow trip around the bases stepping gingerly each time he placed his left foot onto the clay surface.

I think if it was not for the extreme adrenaline rush of the moment, Joyce would have had a considerable time even walking around the bases after his unfortunate episode. And it brought a bit of bitterness to me in that moment in that Joyce could have been another on-field calamity to embrace this Rays squad. Already Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings sat on the bench watching Joyce twist upon his ankle in that awkward position, and I know a few of the guys on that bench feared the worst for Joyce until he began to shake it off a bit.

In that instant, if Joyce had injured himself and somehow had injured himself just enough to warrant any considerable amount of time off-the-field, it would have benched another key ingredient of the Rays offensive arsenal with a lower body injury. Already hamstrings (Longo), knee (Jennings) and wrist (Fuld) aliments have put a damper on a offensive unit that most thought could dominate in 2012. If Joyce had been bitten by the injury bug, he would have been a huge cog missing from the Rays offensive machine.

Joyce’s 3-run bomb was the first blast of his career as a “go-ahead” homer in the 9th inning or later. Chalk another great feat by Joyce off his baseball bucket list. Considering Joyce leads the Rays in Home Runs (7) right now, and 6 of his HR have come in his last 19 games (17 starts). Put his 8 RBI and .400 OBP so far in May (8 games), and you get an idea Joyce is just warming up. His .598 Slugging Percentage ranks 4th in the American League, and Joyce also currently shares both the Rays and AL lead in triples with teammate Ben Zobrist.

After his scary moment last night Joyce may take a night off tonight to get some treatment and give a little extra tender loving care to his lead ankle. Let’s hope he can get well before the Rays head off to Baltimore this weekend where Joyce seems to love to play, and hit in that bandbox called Camden’s Yard. Still it was a frightening moment seeing Joyce roll over on his left ankle last night. Right now he is hitting the ball brilliantly, and we truly do not need to see another talented starter riding the pine awaiting his injury to heal. Last night we all witnessed the odd pairing of triumph and agony even before Joyce could take a full step out of the batter’s box. Hopefully we never get to see that pairing again….Right Matt?

Time to Re-Joyce

The title says it all. How can you not even consider any act of rejoicing for the pure fact that Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Matt Joyce is not only off to a great start in 2012, but has gotten more than a fighting chance to show his stuff against left and right-handed pitchers this season. I understand the post-2012 thinking of Rays skipper Joe Maddon of Joyce wade into the Rays hitting pool slowly, but the guy has proven he doesn’t need a platoon partner. I mean what else does the guy have to do to get a full-time gig? It is time to finally throw Joyce into the deep end of the shark tank and see if he can dog paddle or swim like a cow-nosed ray.

Coming into the 2012 season Joyce was riding the accolades of his first All-Star selection, playing in 142 games during the season, and posting up some impressive number during his first season of Maddon loosing up the reins. So far in 2012 Joyce has posted up a .308 average with 7 extra base hits, including a current streak of going 8-for-20 over his last 5 games with 3 HR, 3 RBI and has scored 8 runs. Joyce has hit safely in 8 of his last 9 games batting .375 during this span. Unfortunately so far in 2012, Joyce has seen a bit of struggles against left-handers who have tried to expand the outside corner of the strike zone on him, but Joyce has pushed up a .222 average with a solo HR and 3 RBI.

 That might not get a resounding vocal of support from Maddon, but considering Joyce has only had 18 at bats against lefties this season, Maddon might still be playing the odds with Joyce. But seriously, hasn’t Joyce over the last few weeks proven he can stand tall in the box against hurlers from either side of the rubber? Why go back to the old Maddon mindset of putting Joyce on the pine when Joyce might be finally adjusting to the outside pitch offering and getting into a groove mentally of knowing what is in store for him during plate appearances against southpaws. Why not let Joyce mature and get some valuable plate time proving he is an all-around hitter, not just someone who can blast one against righties.

Of course a lot of this early 2012 success has also been on the heels of the Rays not having a legitimate tag-team partner to interweave with Joyce after Rays CF B J Upton went down even before the 2012 season after a Spring Training game collision with LF Desmond Jennings. Sure maybe Joyce has not posted up amazing numbers to get his name scribbled in daily against left-handers yet, but the guy is learning with each step in the box, and sooner or later he will find that rhythm and bat cadence that will produce the run scoring opportunities and boast his confidence at the same time.

Going to be interesting especially on Sunday to see if Maddon goes against his old judgment concerning Joyce and gives him a day on the pine against struggling Twins leftie Francisco Liriano. You would think this might be the perfect test for Joyce going against a hurler that has posted a 11.91 ERA and has given up at least 5 earned runs in his 3 2012 starts.

Still when you hit .290 against right-handers with 16 HR and 60 RBI during the 2011 season then mirror image that with a glaring contrast of a .219 average with 3 HR and 15 RBI against lefties, it makes a decision to bench you statistically solid. But if you look deeper at the splits, Joyce got 370 chances against righties while he only went to the plate 92 times against southpaws last season.

Before Joyce sent a pitch into the Rogers Centre seats in the top of the 7th inning against Toronto Blue Jays southpaw ace Ricky Romero during the Rays April 17th loss, Joyce has been feast or famine with round-trippers against his leftie foes. In 2011, Joyce got all 3 of his Home Runs against left-handers in a span of 13 at bats, and before his blast in Toronto, these were Joyce’s only Home Runs ever hit against lefties in his career.

Seems to me possibly Joyce is starting to find his moments against southpaws, possibly figuring out a wise and honest approach to putting bat on ball and producing results in his starts against the type of pitchers who used to “own him”. Since Maddon is a purveyor of the statistical elements, hopefully the recent actions by Joyce in the batters box will give Maddon the hope and confidence that Joyce can handle any pitcher, any time, in any situation and prove once and for all he is another valuable weapon in the Rays hitting arsenal no matter who is on the hill.

Upton Needs to “Get Back on the Horse” Soon


I am beginning to worry a bit about Tampa Bay Rays CF B J Upton. Not because he is missing vital Spring time in the field, but because sometimes letting a fear fester can be his own worst enemy. The reasoning for this worry stems from a recent collision between Upton and Rays LF Desmond Jennings that left both with soreness, stiffness and bouts of pain.

The worst injury unfortunately is the one we can not see with our eyes, or predict with any clarity. The mind is notorious for making the imagery of the event and the aftermath blur and sometimes amplify to the point where the athlete doesn’t venture into that same situation again with abandon, but with caution and fear for a return engagement with the grass and a visit from the Rays training staff.

This is the fear I have right now that Upton’s confidence is damaged. Not beyond repair, but he needs to get into game action soon, face the demon of another “dying quail between himself and the Rays infield, or a long drive high in the gap that he can run under, or take command of with confidence. Right now Upton could have the same hesitation that an NFL receiver feels initially after a jarring hit over the middle, or when he is somersaulting through the air after being up-ended.

Hearing footsteps, taking an extra degree of caution while running towards a ball can be detrimental to the style and devil-may-care attitude Upton has shown as he has risen up the ranks to become a top-tier defensive outfielder. Taking a second off his response time, a hesitation in his start towards a ball in flight or fearing another collision with a teammate could derail all the good deeds he has done in the Rays outfield since 2007.

The cure for this illness is simple. Upton needs to get back onto the field as soon as possible, have a high fly ball hit into the gap or in front of him and he needs to make the play like he did 1,000′s of times before his recent collision. The problem is right now, he is not on the field. Taking that first step onto the field during a contest is the first vital step in his recovery.

Sure some will say he needs to heal his physical wounds before he can stave off his mental issues, but that is malarkey. Getting back on his proverbial horse, seeing the ball again as just a white sphere and not something that almost took his livelihood away is paramount. Miscalculations happen every day in sports either by players in the field or on the mound, and they bounce back with better clarity and understanding of what to do “next time” a similar situation rears its ugly head.

A good word of advice is possibly Upton becoming more vocal, being the QB in the outfield and calling off infielders or his corner outfielders when he feels he has a legitimate shot at a ball. I still remember seeing a collision between Jose Cruz Jr and Damon Rolls in shallow Right field near the foul line in 2004 that shook both players to their internal cores. Both players ended up battling their own separate demons after that event, but both also tried to get back on the field ASAP to start the mental healing process.

For many MLB seasons Upton has thrown his body around the turf in the Trop. or on the road without a care or worry or fear of mortal consequences. It is a unteachable quality to give 110% on a play most would deem a loss even before an attempt, then gripping the ball in the glove and hearing the cheers all around you. Upton needs to get back on the field and make such a play and return to that cocky level of play that endears him to us.

Banging into walls, diving face-first with his glove and arm extended is part of the work that Upton has signed up for as a MLB outfielder, and he is very good at it. But right now with him on the sidelines, letting his mind play the event over and over again, it is a dangerous time for Upton.

The sooner Upton can again take stride towards the field, take total command again of his position and hope for a redemption screaming line drive hit either to his left or right. Until that moment, Upton will rethink the event in his head, replaying it, trying to dissect it like a Science experiment instead of accepting it is part of the game. Mental toughness is as important to his game persona as his sweet swing. Letting him simmer in the dugout possibly doing a replay over and over in his mind is not good for him or the team.

I have a gut feeling the first fly ball into the gaps or in front of Upton is key to his return to the field. No matter if it is BP or game time, that first blast towards him will cause a reaction, my guess it will trigger the old “Upton” to get on his high horse and pull that stray ball into his glove like he has 1,000′s of times before. But he must first step on the field for the real on-the-job healing to begin.

 

 

Hoping There is One More Trade on the Back Burner

The Tampa Bay Rays have sent out the vibe that they are basically done “shopping” and will just add a few stray parts to their Spring Invite list thus possibly closing the door to any movements before the team’s current player report to Port Charlotte, Florida in mid-February. I’m not buying this for nano second.

Maybe it is a gut feeling or possibly a bit too much Chipotle Tabasco sauce, but this team is never done trading up or passing up a deal that could eliminate payroll or provide a bit more stability to security within their roster. And with the Rays having to add a $1.25 million dollar cherry on top of their recent Carlos Pena sundae, this team will be more than n eager to take a call from a certain GM in the Nation’s Capitol, possibly bringing a two-fold relief effort.

Of course I’m talking about Mike Rizzo, the General Manager of the Washington Nationals who has been poking and prodding B J Upton like a prized Angus beef cow for the last few years. Now that the Rays are possibly nearing the bursting point in their budget bubble, the right deal with the Nats for the right player (s) could happen quickly and also relieve some of that payroll pressure instantly giving the team actually a bit of payola if they want to bring in a right-handed bench bat with some of the pressure relieving cash.

Of course I’m talking about the Rays possibly finally sending B J Upton to the Nationals which would relieve $ 7.6 million off the Rays payroll in one swift move, adding the Nats would be bold enough to send SS Danny Espinosa to the Rays as the “other part of the bargain”. Believe me, Espinosa can hit and field and is making the MLB minimum and has not even breached the arbitration process.

With one firm “Yuuuup”, the Rays could plug their question mark at shortstop, bring some cash back into the fold to entice a right-handed bat and still tuck enough away for a possible late July movement if the Rays need additional firepower. It would also eliminate the ticking clock above Upton’s head immediately, give him a clean break to go basically “back home”, closer to his Northern Virgina roots and play in front of friends and family on a more opportunistic basis. Last but not least, it will make the Rays CF transition happen in a timely manner, giving heir apparent Desmond Jennings possibly the reigns to the spot.

It could facilitate a move by Matt Joyce to Leftfield or keep the status quo in Rightfield with Ben Zobrist and Joyce flip-flopping depending on the opposing pitching match ups like in 2011. The movement of Upton to another greener pasture could also give a golden opportunity to both Sam Fuld and Brandon Guyer to grab a hold of a Outfield flux and prove their worth to Maddon and his staff this Spring, possibly getting them to more time on the field. On the surface it looks like a win-win for everyone.

Even more interesting is the fact if the Rays did trade for Espinosa, it would bring into effect another “6 degrees of Longo connection” onto the Rays roster. You see, Espinosa like current Rays RP pitcher Cesar Ramos is also a ex-alum of Long Beach State University. Add that to the fact Espinosa can stroke the ball for power ( 21 HR, .735 OPS) and has speed (17 SB, 33 doubles), he could be a nice asset to offset the current short stop power deficiency.

Add plus to it all is that Espinosa will not reach the salary arbitration process until 2014, possibly being the stopgap defender up the middle the Rays could bank on until Huk-Ju Lee gets his feet wet at the MLB level. Espinosa also would have great trade value at the Trade Deadline this season if Reid Brignac rebounds and get off to a torrid start, or finally takes ownership of the Rays SS position.

It all looks enticing, but as we all know, the Rays do not ask my opinion on salary or team concept only if I want a large or medium Dr. Pepper at the concession stand. Still, I like this deal more for the possible immediate values and trade kickbacks this could have towards the Rays putting a team on the field that could suffice those nasty 2011 offensive sand traps.

I know this whole enchilada trade concept is more fantasy than reality, but the Rays have done thing before on the spur of the moment and they have paid some gritty dividends. I know possibly sending a veteran player and a guy who can be an offensive spark plug and defensive bright spot is a gamble, but it is one I would love to see more for the fact I would love to get a quality player in-house before the end of 2012 and possibly see Upton take a long walk and the Rays standing there empty-handed.

If this whole thing is just a dream sequence, please do not wake me until February 18th, I want to believe in its fruition for just a little bit longer.

Are The Rays Currently in Ghost Protocol Mode?

On Wall Street, the Trades and Acquisitions Department of large investment firm have the covert mentality of the CIA and other branches of International intrigue that use initials. Knowledge is power, and with that, secrecy and the movements under that umbrellas come at a premium.

So far this Winter we have heard and seen some of the clandestine targets and near misses of the Tampa Bay Rays, who operate under their own initialed powerful and might organization, the MLB, has taken the art form of gliding amongst the darkened halls with silent whispers to a new level. As we have learned in the past, the Rays have a circle of trust within its Fourth floor domain that no constants, syllable or even grown are visualized or voiced when the always alert media comes a-callin’ with trade rumors and whispers in the wind.

Some moves might be counter-moves, made to seem directed towards a general target, but suddenly change direction, showing a more devious and unimagined alternative plan. Take the recent movement by the Rays to get the services of free agent outfielder Coco Crisp. That’s right, the same Crispy critter who almost walked into a James Shields hay maker in 2008 that might have shattered Shield’s pitching hand.

Who in their right Rays mind could have seen this one coming? Of course Crisp decided he like to stay on his dock by the bay and rejected the Rays advances. We know Crisp and Shields have buried their hatchet, but have all the bad blood been drained within the Rays Republic in regards to Crisp? That, my friends is blowing in the wind now, and great fodder for Happy Hour discussions. But the outfielder chatter did not stop with the Coco one, there was another attempt, or stab at Seth Smith, and adequate fielder and hitter in his own right to possibly be a Plan B to the Crisp covert ops.

But you got to ask of there is a problem within the Rays outfield we do not see, or are we possibly looking 4-moves behind the mind right now of Rays Executive VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman. I was content to think we might see Desmond Jennings in Right field this season trading spots with Matt Joyce who I thought made his presence known for the full-time gig, even against southpaws. I had come to terms my myself that B J Upton might wear a question mark on his uniform instead of the # 2 this season as his tenure in Rays Center field is more rental than lease with an option to buy. Was starting to think someone named Damon might have the only true answer.

The moves towards Crisp and Smith have me wondering just how much confidence the Rays have in Sam Fuld, Brandon Guyer or even Justin Ruggiano to be that 4th asset in the OF puzzle…or if their own Rays existence is also under the microscope as possible trade fodder? It is almost as if I should think of 20 of the 25 names on the Rays roster not named Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, Joel Peralta, Evan Longoria or Ben Zobrist are stapled to the Trop turf, but everyone else is up for discussion at some point. And now comes internal gossip the Rays might not have held onto Smith if they had signed him, but used him as more enticing bait for another morsel….How quickly the tides turn in Tampa Bay.

But that is what the Winter Hot Stove season is all about right? Making the waters boil and seeing who rises to the top of the pile and who settles to the bottom, possibly there until the late July Trade Deadline timetable. Early this Winter we had the Ivan Rodriguez, Josh Willingham, Carlos Beltran and finally an afterthought of a Anthony Rizzo acquisition spinning in our head’s before the new year. Sometimes I wish I had a mouse with a lipstick camera or a house fly with a video feed to give me something tangible and substantial to write about before it hits the general airwaves.

I’m beginning to think we need to contact the modern Sherlock Holmes I saw on BBC the other night, he sees in that altered universe realm, and can be perfectly comfortable thinking 6-8 moves ahead of the rest of us mortals. For some reason I think a MI-6 License to Kill might be easier to obtain than a Rays trade whisper. Sure there are still cracks in the Rays armor, but it is in the field personnel and not on the front office lines. Questions abound around the infield now with the Rays inquest towards trying to secure Brooks Conrad and Ryan Theriot.

I had the notion to think it might be a slip up, a showing of their cards that possibly Sean Rodriguez is penciled in at Shortstop and Second in a platoon, and Zobrist again will carry at least 5 gloves to every Rays contest. I thought for a moment I might have cracked a hidden code, possibly being 1-move ahead of the pack with the Rays inquiring about Conrad and Theriot, but their talents were to be as bit players not starters in the proposed Maddon 2012 Tour. Foiled again just when I thought I had inched forward with something of substance again left with poached egg on my grill.

But one day. Ahhh, one day someone will crack the code, bring about the wheeling and dealing to the surface, not with the realm of full disclosure, but with hints, smatterings of intel and possibly make us all giddy again about what really lies behind the Rays Carolina Blue curtains. But I am left right now with the pure facts I will never be in the Rays circle of trust, never be an intricate part of the Rays always unfolding covet machine, finally realizing with crystal clear clarity my best guesses at trades are just those…guesses.

I guess I will have to be content that the powers that be that invisibly move within the 4th Floor sanctum is hard at work making the Rays a better oiled machine. A more precise instrument to take into the 182 battles that make up an MLB season. That I can sleep better at night knowing Friedman is out there somewhere already in work mode to answer those question we have not even asked yet.  Still, the Ryan Madson rumors have me curious….I wonder if there is a motorized mouse online I can buy, or what time is it in London?

2011 is Almost in the Books, but What a Season to Remember.

Usually around this time of the year Tampa Bay Rays blogs begin to countdown their top moments of the season. It was a historic season by many aspects. The team posted their third trip in four seasons to the October party, but also we saw so many of the Rays post their own moments of wonder and amazement it has to have all of us giddy with emotion knowing there are less than 100 days before the fun all begins again for 2012.

We saw the emergence of “the Legend”( Sam Fuld), the formulation of the “Magic of Kotch” (Casey Kotchman) movement, and also saw the further maturation of the Rays top tier players David Price and Evan Longoria. We saw Sean Rodriguez move across the diamond to the 6-hole and show why he has always been a prized reward of the Scott Kazmir trade. Desmond Jennings came up and proved once and for all he is not a “Crawford”-clone, but has his own power, style and base-stealing magic.

Matt Joyce proved he had the stuff to hit left-handers, and Ben Zobrist again show the “Zorilla” style traits we all fell in love with during the 2008-2009 campaigns. From starters to Bullpen the Rays hurlers showed promise, unexpected magical moments and the durability of the staff graybeard as James Shields merited Cy Young consideration.

2011 was suppose to be a rebuilding season, but the only rebuilding the Rays did was on their reputation and solidarity to fixate on that post-season goal and drive towards it with vigor and vitality. This season will not go down in Rays history as the most productive on paper, but the 91 wins posted by this squad were 1 better than their rivals the Boston Red Sox and produced another champagne moment within Tropicana Field.

Rays Manager Joe Maddon instilled a “Find Another Way” mantra on his troops early this Spring and several players in the Rays fold responded by showing their abilities are on par with this league even if their MLB service clocks show minimal numbers. Jennings might have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt in 2011 he should be the heir apparent to the Rays lead-off hitter the Rays for 2012. Joyce finally got the at bats to prove he can be the Rays everyday right-fielder and run producer.

All five members of the Rays 2011 posted over 10+ victories with Shields leading the field with a 16-12 record. Not only did Shields lead his young Rays comrades in “W’s”, he also topped the squad in innings pitched (249.1 innings), strikeouts (225) and ERA (2.82 ). Filling in gaps within the season the Rays saw the promise of brilliance of Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and the late season relief pitching of Alex Torres.

Pitching definitely defined so many of these great Rays moments, but the bats did not remain silent during the carnage. We saw new closer Kyle Farnsworth struggle but post a career high with 25 saves, but we also saw the season toll takes it effect on one of the most intimidating players in the game. But the Rays Bullpen which featured 3 lefties for most of the season closed down offenses with RP Joel Peralta providing his own brand of set-up brilliance as well as posting 6 saves. From inning 1 to 9 this Rays team’s pitching tried to set the tone and bring home a win on a nightly basis.

Who will forget that Home Run hit by Longo to seal the Rays post-season against the Yankees on the season’s last day in extra frames about the same time ex-Rays LF Carl Crawford missed a dying quail in Baltimore to propel the Rays into the October party.

With that singled out win on the last day of the 2011 campaign, the Rays ended up posting their only winning September ever with a 16-10 record. It also secured the squad’s third straight 90+ win season, How pale does that starting 1-8 record look now in retrospect as corks exploded within the Trop’s confines and players and fans celebrated together.

Rookies earned their Rays letters this season at an alarming rate as Moore, Brandon Gomes,Torres, Jake McGee and Jeremy Hellickson combined to bring home 8 of those 16 September victories among them, further showing the promise and prosperity that should bring about more moments of celebration and excitement in 2012 for this talented 5-some. Each of these 5 hurlers definitely earned their Rays letterman’s sweaters complete with a shaving cream pie.

But even with the emergence of the rookies, some of the Rays players saw their season as constant reminders of the ever-changing MLB environment. Pitchers J P Howell and Andy Sonnanstine began the 2012 Spring Training with high expectations and a want to show their abilities for this team. Sonny ended up in Triple-A Durham for most of the season, and Howell who came on later in the season never seemed to find the right groove or positive upward momentum. But that is the joy of the New Year, resolutions can be made, and the past is just that…past.

The 2011 season has long been put into the record books, but 2011 is slowing winding down towards it’s last tick of the clock and should be remembered as a season of true fortitude, ever-present resilience and a combined team-wide confidence stemming from the veterans to rookies that this team could win on any given night.

But still if I had to pick a moment of clarity for the Rays, a scene that showed the drive, commitment and determination of this squad it was on the 180th day of the season, in the 12th inning Longoria proved once and for all he is the man to follow on this squad even before his 31st Home Run made human contact in the right field stands. So as we begin to enter the 15th season for the Rays, Sonny has found a new home with the Cubs, Maddon has darkened his hair a few shades.

Changes are still in store for this team before they cross the Port Charlotte, Florida threshold this Spring. Some players have solidified their spots on the roster while others have the Rays scouting and Coaching staff wearing out the erasers on their pencils trying to mesh and mold this squad to take that next step. Can’t wait for that crystal ball to fall in NYC soon because that will symbolize that 2012 is squarely upon us, and the memories of 2011 are just that…fond and precious memories.

If You Don’t Believe Now, Better Check Your Pulse



Words would just ruin the moment. Here is a photo essay of complied photos from the great AP photographers Mike Carlson / Chris O’Meara and Getty Images Photog  J. Meric  on the field and deep within the bowels of Tropicana Field  tonight. 




 

Last, but not least, the Home Run trot that began the celebration!



10 Years Later, “Heart and Hustle, Redux”

2011 is the 10th anniversary of the Tampa Bay Rays up tempo slogan “Heart and Hustle” that signified and branded a Rays squad consisting of a hodge podge of vets and rookies who meshed together to play a energized style of Rays baseball. Sounds kind of familiar?

That same highly energized and enthusiastic slogan could easily be stamped upon this 2011 Rays squad. Truly it is the essence of this team’s “ fire in the belly “heart and “never say die” hustle that has lead this ball club from the April darkness of the American League East cellar to them gaining momentum, slowly escalating onward and upward towards a 6-game shootout with the slumping Boston Red Sox and surging Los Angeles Angels for the potential AL Wild Card post season prize.

Even 10 years later, heart and hustle still seem to be firmly within the foundation and backbone of the Rays team culture. From the extreme performance last night from their youngest player on their roster RP/SP Matt Moore to a their oldest “young at heart” performer OF/DH Johnny Damon who only has to look at his ring fingers to visually show he can help lead this young maturing band of baseball brothers to that last glorious plateau in late October.

 I mean how can you root against a team where Damon, who was born in 1973 is still grinding out extra base hits and stealing bases like rookie sensation Desmond Jennings. Just because Damon is adding nightly to his future Hall of Fame resume, the pure magic he sees within this team is not lost on him that the Rays have the drive and confidence to take this thing to its final destination, then party like rock stars.

Even the Rays usual whipping boy B J Upton has pushed his numbers high and higher as the number of games diminish, possibly knowing within his mind this might be his last chance at post season glory with this Rays club before the Winter could dish out a harsh reality to him and the Rays Republic. Right now Upton is playing like a man possessed, or who knows the window of opportunity is beginning to be shut.

Do not get me started on this Rays rotation where from top to bottom we have seen 10+ wins by each starter, and had glimpses of magic from often maligned SP Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann. We have seen Rays rookie Jeremy Hellickson get a secondary nickname just for 2011, “HellROY” as he burns towards the finish line.

Even the Rays rookies are set to make a little history of their own as Jennings needs only 2 stolen bases over the next 6 games to become the first AL rookie with 10 HR and 20 SB since the Rays own Rocco Baldelli and Kansas City’s Angel Berroa set the mark in 2003. Hellickson has a .290 ERA and a .208 opponent average, the fifth best rookie performance…ever.

Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s mantra of “pitching sets the tone” has definitely sparked some beautiful music from his hurlers as the Rays collectively have held the American League to a .236 average. The last AL team to post such numbers was the 2001 Mariners who had the same .236 average. Oh, and by the way, that Mariners club made the playoffs. Rays starters have gone 7+ innings 77 times, 21 times more than the second closest squad, their AL East rivals the New York Yankees.

Amazing enough, this Rays pitching staff has thrown 1,024.1 innings (most in AL) and leads the AL with a 3.51 ERA, 15 complete games and has allowed an AL-low 593 runs. All this by a staff that has seen all 156 prior 2011 Rays game started by pitchers drafted and developed by the Rays, the only team in the majors this season who can boast that claim. Plus, they are riding a 758 consecutive streak of starters under the age of 30…an MLB record.

Along with their upward trend in pitching, the Rays have solidified their overall defense to the tone that the Rays have committed the least errors in the Majors (69), and their combined .988 Fielding Percentage is tied with NL powerhouse Philadelphia for the top slot in the MLB. Talk about “hustle”, this Rays team has committed only 4 errors in their last 17 games, and only 17 in their past 53 contests.

If ever there was a Rays team that demonstrated that mantra of “Heart and Hustle”, it is this 2011 squad. This Rays squad was 9 games out of playoff contention on September 2, 2011. No other team in MLB history has overcome that many games in September to get into the post season. The closest comparison would be the St. Louis Cardinals (who trained in St. Petersburg, Fl) who were in 3rd place and trailed the Philadelphia Phillies by 8.5 games on September 3, 1964.

History is definitely on the Rays side right now as the Rays have already secured their 4th straight 10 win seasonal series against tonight’s foe, the Toronto Blue Jays, the most against any Rays opponent. The Rays are also a combined 25-8 against the pesky bird in Tropicana Field over that same time period. Also working into the Rays favor is their lifetime 6-4 record against the Yankees in the last series of the season, including a dismal 1-2 mark in 1999.

Since 2001, the Rays have beaten New York by a 5-2 mark during the last series of the season at Tropicana Field. This 2011 squad has a chance to possibly duplicate some more late season angst upon the 2011 AL East Champion Yankee just as they did back in 2001 when the Yankees won the AL East and the Rays beat them 3 out of 4 games heading into the post season

The Rays past “Heart and Hustle” campaign centered on their rising stars and a few veterans getting their last swings at glory. Maybe we should collectively called this Rays prospect of the Rays 2011 Renaissance and possibly Rays history repeating itself, “Heart and Hustle Redux”. I think it fits perfectly like a glove.

Jennings Serves Up Tater Dessert for 1,000 Rays Victory

From the moment the ball met the bat, you knew it sounded different. The magnitude of the event was not lost on the 11,190 Rays fans as Tropicana Field possibly erupted into a bellow of sound that rivaled a jet engine. Rays rookie Desmond Jennings not only gave the Rays a win with his 10th inning walk-off homer, he firmly planted that baby into the record books with authority.

It was the way Hollywood would have scripted this event. Futility in the 9th inning by a reliable closer, then one of the Rays youngest members thrusting his will and power to ultimately decide the game. A milestone moment like a 1,000th franchise career “W” had to have a plethora of dramatic effect. This moment seem to call for a climatic thunderous sound of wood meeting rawhide. Simply put, this moment needed that certain exclamation point.

Simply posting an easy victory with no dramatic effect has not been the Rays way this season at home. The Trop used to be a budding loss factory for any visiting teams used to venture into its hallowed hallways, defeats accumulated often in this dome of doom. In 2011, the cowbells and the Rays offense fell mute and useless as this team struggled to find another way to even win.

Today’s blast in the bottom of the 10th inning made a visual farewell to the pesky Rangers and hello to history. This walk-off was the 11th of it’s kind in 2011, equaling the previous Rays seasonal walk-off totals achieved in both the 2000 and 2008 seasons, and we still have 9 home contests left.

But this is becoming a bit of a routine thing for this young Rays squad that has now produced 6 walk-off victories in their last 20 home games. But this one was special. 1,000 of anything is a classic achievement and the way Jennings put his power on show to secure this once fledging franchise’s 1,000th win definitely merited not only a historic benchmark, but a purely “Hollywood” moment.

Spontaneous and climatic team meetings around Home Plate have become more of a norm lately during Rays home games, but this unrehearsed moment in time will be remembered by more than just those assembled within the Trop. During this “getaway” game karma moment.

Rays Republic members who might have begun to doubt this team, who might have lost a bit of the enthusiastic zeal this September will revel in the persistence of this young club to not lay down, not give up, not want to send the home crowd home with their heads down.

And during all of the Rays on field commotion, out in the Rightfield stands, a great display of good sportsmanship was evolving as the Rays players and fans celebrated. The Ranger fan who caught Jennings Home Run ball wanted to give it back to him and the team because of the importance of the 1,000 franchise win. I hope the fan got a chance to come to the Rays Clubhouse and give the ball either to Jennings or Rays Manager Joe Maddon.

On a day when Rays starter David Price joined teammate James Shields in the 200-strikeout club you knew something special was waiting in the wings. The moment was almost for naught as usually reliable Kyle Farnsworth served up a Home Run ball to Ian Kinsler in the top of the 9th inning to send this game into an extra frame.

Climatic as that blown save was, it was nothing compared to the first pitch seen by Jennings that ended up nestled in the palm of that Rangers fan. Some moments define a player, a team, a franchise. This 2011 Rays squad has been all about the meats and potatoes of the game all season long. Figured their 1,00th would not only be a walk-off, it would be a classic “meatloaf” victory served up with Jennings smashed taters…and a towel of Vanilla pudding especially for Jennings.  Yummmmm, makes me hungry just thinking about it.

 

 

Here are a few photos of the Rays keepsake given out to fans as they exited Tropicana Field to celebrate this tremendous milestone in Rays franchise history:

There’s a New Historic # 8 in Tampa Bay

Picking the number 8 Tampa Bay Rays jersey can lead to people throwing high expectations, even lofty comparisons upon your shoulder in a heart beat. For that was the same Rays uniform number that fellow speed demon Carl Crawford took for himself when he embarked on his own rookie campaign with the team.

So far in this 36 game spread, I am beginning to forget that other #8 as this one is doing some amazing things to make even the Rays biggest skeptics give a little sheepish grin. Seems like the stars and universe have come and cosmically aligned for Jennings as he was brought up on July 23rd by the Rays almost mirror-imaging Crawford’s own July 20, 2002 call-up.

Immediately Jennings got to do something Crawford could never do as a Ray, solidify the lead-off spot and make it productive. Since his arrival in Tampa Bay, Jennings has produced at such a terrifying rate that he ranks second on the Rays (after MLB leader/teammate Evan Longoria) in round trippers since the All-Star break with 8. Hmm, there is that mystic number again.

But Jennings haven’t let the stat-heads within the Rays Republic rest as he has a few impressive stats of his own since his July 23rd 2011 debut . Jennings currently leads the majors in stolen bases (14) has 42 hits (19 for extra bases) maintaining ans insane .354 batting average along with a skyrocketing .646 Slugging percentage. Suddenly that old # 8 is beginning to fade from my memory.

Need another reason to erase a bit of Crawford from your Rays rookie mindset, in 2002, Crawford appeared in 63 of the Rays final 67 games that season. He sported a .259 Batting Average with 2 Home Runs, 30 RBI’s and 9 stolen bases. Jennings has already eclisped all of the RBI total already from a fresh and invigorated Crawford’s rookie totals.

Wild part is, this kid is just getting started. Someone with a whole lot of time on their hands today (@RaysRepublic) even decided to try and figure out the seasonal numbers of both Crawford and Jennings if each played a 162 game season. Remarkably Jennings would trump even the 2011 edition of Crawford with an estimated 38 Home Runs and 67 Stolen Bases. Crawford would have posted 14 HR and 26 SB.

You do not want to anoint Jennings as the “ second coming” of anyone, much less Crawford. But since Jennings arrival in Tampa Bay his elevator has been sprinting towards the penthouse instead of the 8th floor. I kind of hoped this kind of drama would play out where the C C comparisons would be leveled by those skeptics and believers that players like Crawford come once in a lifetime.

Jennings has done his job so far in making a lot of us in the Rays Republic look past the afterglow of the “C C Era” and dream heavenly thoughts of the future “D J’s Adventure”. Both men left their game totally on the field every night trying to produce, excite and provide something new, thought provoking and jaw dropping.

So far Jennings has surpassed so much of C C’s legendary rookie escapades, and we still have over a month left of the Rays 2011 season. The Rays finally found that 2011 piece of the puzzle they have been searching for and have begun to their wagon to this budding young star on his meteoric rise.

I truly can’t wait for Monday night’s Toronto Blue Jays game to see what Desmond has in store for us….I bet it will make a little more of Crawford’s past fade into the darkness. There’s a new #8 in town, and his name is Desmond Jennings. 

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